How One Young Woman’s Delusions Cost Her Years of Freedom
The Village Voice | May 3, 2005
TARA MCDONALD, A SLENDER 35-YEAR-OLD with long brown hair, was a frequent visitor to Brooklyn Heights in the summer of 2002. She picked up double cheeseburgers at the McDonald’s on Court Street. She dipped in and out of the stores on Montague. She wandered the brownstone-lined side streets, stopping by the Pierrepont Playground. While other people reveled in the warm weather, Tara could not relax. She was distressed by what she thought she saw all around her.
On June 16, Tara approached a mother pushing her seven-month-old daughter in a stroller down Montague Street. Tara tried to touch the baby, then followed the mother into Waldenbooks, tailed her to the second floor, and reached over to touch the child again. On June 20, Tara strode down Clinton Street alongside a nanny with a stroller. “Give me the baby!” she said. “Give me the baby!” She accosted this same nanny later that day and grabbed the child’s legs.
Brooklyn Heights buzzed with rumors about a strange woman stalking people with strollers. Local schools sent home letters warning parents. Fears about a potential kidnapper—every parent’s worst nightmare—spread through the neighborhood. On July 16, Tara approached another mother on Montague. Tara followed her into a restaurant, knelt in front of her stroller, and grasped the hands of her eight-month-old. “Don’t touch my baby!” the mother said, then fled to the back of the restaurant.
On the streets of Brooklyn Heights, Tara saw women with strollers everywhere, triggering a sense of panic inside her. She believed these women were not the children’s mothers, but were actually nannies who planned to hurt the babies or sell them, perhaps with the help of the KKK or the mob. She was convinced it was her duty to intervene. “I thought that the kids were my very own friends,” she explained later. “What were they doing with these people? They didn’t even know these kids—and I did. I recognized their faces from long ago, somewhere deep in my soul.”
Tara’s concern was not new, just a variation on thoughts that had been tumbling around her mind for years. For more than a decade, she’d been obsessed with plastic rain covers—the ones that parents place over a stroller to keep their baby dry. Whenever Tara saw a baby under a plastic cover, she was convinced that the baby could not breathe, that it desperately needed fresh air. She would approach people she saw pushing baby carriages and ask them to lift the cover. If they refused, Tara would try to do it herself.
On the evening of July 16, a few hours after Tara had accosted a woman and her baby inside a restaurant, she was wandering around Brooklyn Heights, still upset about all the abusive nannies she believed she’d seen. Two police officers approached and informed her that she matched the description of someone they’d been looking for. They brought her back to the 84th Precinct; she spent the night in a holding cell.
Tara’s arrest made the papers. “Woman Busted as Serial Baby Grabber,” declared the Daily News. The New York Post dubbed her a “Kidnap-Rap Wacko.” By now Tara already had an arrest record dating back to the 1980s. This time she was charged with a felony—attempted kidnapping—and faced a maximum punishment of 15 years in prison. She had no idea when, or how, she would ever get out.
TARA WAS BORN IN 1967 and grew up in Levittown, Long Island. As a child, she was quiet and extremely shy. Her parents gave her a bedroom of her own, decorating it with white furniture and painting the walls light blue. Tara didn’t like to be alone in her room, though; she preferred to be elsewhere in the house, hanging out with her three older brothers.
Life in the McDonald home did not come close to matching the idyllic suburban image of Levittown. Tara’s father, a heavy drinker, died of a heart attack at 41, when she was nine. Four years later, she took her first sip of alcohol. She eventually began smoking pot, and at 17 she tried cocaine. She dropped out of high school and followed friends to Florida, where she worked in an upholstery shop.
Tara moved back to Long Island a year and a half later. Shortly after, her mother, Jean, who has a nursing degree, got her first clue that something was very wrong. One day her 19-year-old daughter walked into the kitchen, tears streaking her face.
“What’s the matter?” Jean asked.
“Mommy, something is happening to me,” Tara said.
Jean pressed her for details, but Tara did not offer any. Today Tara has no recollection of this conversation; Jean cannot forget it. “That was the start of losing Tara,” Jean says.
A few weeks later, Tara took off in Jean’s car without asking permission, even though Jean needed it to get to work. Tara called from the road and announced she was on her way to Tennessee to find a boy she had a crush on. She drove for an entire day, stopping only when she crashed the car in a ditch in North Carolina. “That’s when I started saying, ‘What the hell is going on?’ “ Jean says. “Absolutely, bloody bizarre.”
Not long afterward, Tara came into Jean’s bedroom one night at around 3 a.m. and woke her. “There are babies in Brooklyn that are being hurt,” Tara said. “We need to get in the car and go there immediately and rescue them.”
Jean didn’t know why Tara was acting so oddly; she figured it must be the drugs talking. By now, Tara was snorting both cocaine and heroin. At 23, she started smoking crack. Jean did everything she could to help. She forbade Tara from using drugs in the house. She demanded Tara go into treatment. When Tara acted crazy, Jean called a crisis team and checked her into Nassau County Medical Center. Tara’s trips to the hospital unearthed an explanation for her bizarre actions: She was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Tara didn’t like Long Island, so she spent most of her time hanging out in Tompkins Square Park and on 8th Street. She worried about children starving in North Korea and asked her mother to contact Yoko Ono about the matter. She saved apple seeds, which she put in an envelope and mailed to Africa. The most stressful days were the rainy ones, when the sidewalks were full of strollers with plastic covers. Tara approached parents and nannies all the time, urging them to remove the plastic cover, doing it herself if they refused. Sometimes they hurried away; other times they called the police.
When Tara was in her twenties, the police arrested her at least five times for incidents involving plastic rain covers. Each of these criminal cases followed a similar trajectory: Psychiatrists determined she was too mentally ill to be prosecuted, so she was referred to the Department of Mental Health. Her criminal case was then dismissed because she’d been charged with only a misdemeanor or low-level felony. Usually she ended up spending a few months on Rikers Island.
Jean thought Tara did not belong in jail at all; she believed Tara should be sent to a private psychiatric hospital for a year or two. This way, Tara could receive consistent treatment: She could build a relationship with one psychiatrist, her medication could be monitored, and she could learn how to manage her illness. But an extended stay at a private hospital was impossible; Jean could never afford it.
Tara was back on Rikers Island in the fall of 1997, after an encounter on Greenwich Avenue with a man and his 15-month-old daughter. According to the father, Tara had shouted, “This is my child! This is my child!”—and tried to walk away with his stroller. Tara had already called 911 earlier that day to report someone had kidnapped her baby; she called back after this incident too. This time, she was charged with a serious felony: attempted kidnapping.
Eight months later, Tara pleaded guilty. Not because she actually thought she was guilty (she insisted she had never intended to kidnap the baby), but because, as she told the judge, “I’m scared to go to trial.” A guilty plea in which a defendant does not actually admit guilt is known as an “Alford plea.” It’s extremely rare, but the judge accepted it and sentenced Tara to two-and-a-quarter to four-and-a-half years in prison.
Tara was moved to Bedford Hills, a maximum-security prison in Westchester County. She spent the next two years bouncing between Bedford Hills and Central New York Psychiatric Center in Marcy, the hospital for the state’s most mentally ill prisoners. In 2000, Tara was sent to Pilgrim state hospital in Suffolk County. She was first confined to the hospital, then moved to a residential program on the hospital grounds. Sometimes she was stable; other times she was delusional. She ran away twice.
The first time, her mother and brother Peter went looking for her, determined to find her before she got arrested again. They went to the West Village, and within a few hours spotted Tara on Bleecker Street. She sprinted away when she saw them, but Peter caught her and tackled her to the ground. Tara escaped again in May 2002. She was free for seven weeks before the police in Brooklyn Heights arrested her.
This time, she would be charged in four incidents involving babies. By now it had been 15 years since the delusions started, 15 years of cycling in and out of jails and hospitals. Since she had already been convicted of one violent crime, the criminal justice system considered her a serious criminal—a “violent predicate felon.” This time, her punishment would likely be much more severe.
Flip-Flops and Zyprexa Pills
ON JULY 19, 2002, three days after her arrest, Tara stood before Judge Joseph Kevin McKay in Brooklyn. She’d hardly eaten or slept in weeks. There were still hints of beauty in her appearance—in her creamy skin and soft brown eyes—but by now she bore only a passing resemblance to the 20-year-old who’d started hanging out in the East Village in the late 1980s. Five or six teeth had rotted out, casualties of a decade of drug use.
She spoke loudly and emphatically, as she always did when she hadn’t had any medication in weeks. “I didn’t do anything wrong, man,” she said. “I want to see my children. I want to see if they’re OK. That’s all I did. That’s all I did.”
“OK,” the judge said.
“I didn’t try to kidnap anybody. I just went to say hello. . . . It’s very strange to see some stranger walk around with your fucking children. Did you know that? Have you ever noticed that?”
“I can’t say I have,” he said.
Tara thought that if the judge knew she’d been trying to help the children—not harm them—then he’d realize all of this was just a big misunderstanding. The judge didn’t quite see things that way. “Forthwith to Elmhurst Hospital Prison Ward,” he said.
Most defendants go straight to jail; those who show signs of a serious mental illness are taken to a hospital. Two psychiatrists interviewed Tara, conducting an evaluation known as a “730 exam” to determine if she was mentally fit enough to understand the court proceedings and assist with her own defense. She passed this exam and was moved to the women’s jail on Rikers Island. There, she was assigned to a Mental Observation Unit.
This jail has two M.O. units, housing a total of 90 women. The mental health staff refers to the women as “patients”; the guards call them “inmates.” Virtually all have been diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar illness, or a depressive disorder. Shoelaces are banned, to prevent the women from hanging themselves. Everyone wears plastic flip-flops, slip-on sneakers, or regular sneakers with the tongues hanging out. Twice a day, a nurse wheels in the pill cart. Each drawer has an inmate’s name on it; the pills in Tara’s drawer were Zyprexa, an antipsychotic. Some days she refused to join the pill line. She was convinced she didn’t need medication.
Days in the M.O. Unit are incredibly dull, even more boring than in other parts of the jail. The women there don’t go to the mess hall; the food comes to them. Unlike other inmates, who can get jobs in the laundry or bakery, these women can’t work outside their housing unit. They pass the hours by drinking coffee, braiding each other’s hair, sleeping, bickering. The television blares constantly: Jerry Springer in the morning, soap operas in the afternoon, WWE SmackDown! on Thursday nights.
Jean visited Tara every week. She’d retired several years earlier, and now her efforts to help Tara had become practically a part-time job. Jean never got to see Tara’s cell block, but she imagined the worst sort of place. When Tara called home, Jean could sometimes hear women shouting in the background. Jean became especially frightened every time she read a newspaper story about another inmate suicide.
In recent years, the number of mentally ill people in the criminal justice system has soared. An estimated 20 to 25 percent of the people in New York City jails suffer from a mental illness. The number may be even higher for women: In the women’s jail on Rikers, more than one-third of the inmates receive mental health services. These individuals are considered prisoners first, patients second. The main purpose of the jail system is to confine them—not treat them.
If Tara had been born several decades earlier, she likely would have been locked up for many years in a state hospital, not a jail. In the 1950s, 90,000 New Yorkers resided in state mental hospitals; today that number is less than 5,000. Good intentions led to the disappearance of thousands of state hospital beds. With the emergence of antipsychotic drugs in the 1950s and ‘60s, there was a push to move mental patients out of hospitals and into community programs.
This lofty idea never received adequate funding. Today there are not nearly enough beds in residential programs for everyone who needs them. For Tara and many other people with a serious mental illness, jails and prisons have become de facto mental institutions.
A Plan for World Peace
THE ONLY TIME TARA LEFT RIKERS was when she had to appear at State Supreme Court in Brooklyn. Every few weeks, an officer woke her around 4 a.m. so she could get ready. She’d spend the day on the ninth floor of the courthouse, locked in a pen with several other women. Lunch consisted of two bologna sandwiches, a carton of milk, maybe an orange. The trip could take all day. Sometimes she wouldn’t get back to the M.O. Unit until evening.
After her name appeared in the newspapers following her arrest in Brooklyn Heights, several people reported to the police in Manhattan that she had done the same thing to them. At the end of 2002, the Manhattan district attorney’s office charged her with the same crime: attempted kidnapping. Now she had two criminal cases, which meant she had to go to court twice as often.
In Brooklyn, Tara’s case was transferred to Mental Health Court, a new alternative for mentally ill defendants. This court’s mission is to keep mentally ill people out of the prison system by hooking them up with mental health services in the community—residential or outpatient programs where they receive medication and therapy. For Tara, this court represented her best chance at getting out of jail.
Some days when Tara appeared in court she shouted and cried and strained against her cuffs. The two judges overseeing her cases ordered another mental-competency exam. Tara was ushered into a cramped office in the Manhattan Criminal Court building on March 20, 2003. Two psychiatrists interviewed her, asking the usual questions: What is the charge against you? Have you entered a plea? What is the function of a judge?
At first, Tara seemed coherent. She knew the name of her Manhattan lawyer (“Frank Rothman”), the function of her defense attorney (“Supposed to help me out”), the function of the district attorney (“Supposed to uphold the law”), and the function of a jury (“See if I am a criminal, a good guy or a bad guy”).
When the doctors asked her what the consequences would be if she were found guilty, her calm veneer vanished. “I am not guilty!” she said. “I got things to do—I got to get to the U.N.—I have a plan for world peace—I’ll put all the weapons in the ocean—seal them up—in every country—put them at the North Pole—I know a way to get world peace.” The doctors concluded Tara was “not fit” to be prosecuted.
Tara was transferred to Kirby Forensic Psychiatric Center, a maximum-security hospital on Wards Island. By now she’d been locked up for 256 days. Kirby holds people deemed mentally “unfit” to be prosecuted as well as people who have been found not guilty by reason of insanity. Among its most famous residents is Daniel Rakowitz, dubbed the “Butcher of Tompkins Square Park” by the tabloids 13 years earlier when he was accused of chopping up his girlfriend and cooking her body parts in a soup.
Time moves more quickly at Kirby than on Rikers. On Rikers, nobody cares if you stay in bed all day; at Kirby the staff keeps you busy. Tara went to ceramics and painting classes, bingo nights, the library. She played pool. No longer was she surrounded only by women; her unit was coed. Romantic relationships were prohibited, but she made some male friends, collecting a few names and addresses. Since Kirby is a hospital—not a jail—there was more access to psychiatrists and group therapy.
Tara refused medication at first, but eventually she permitted the staff to give her a shot of Prolixin, an antipsychotic. Tara knew she wouldn’t get out of Kirby if she did not agree to be medicated. Over the years, she’d tried numerous antipsychotics, both old and new: Haldol, Thorazine, Prolixin, Risperdal, Geodon. The Prolixin worked better for some patients because it could be given as an injection, eliminating the possibility it could be spit out.
In the fall of 2003, 447 days after her Brooklyn Heights arrest, Tara was given yet another psych exam. This time, she answered all the questions correctly. She knew the definition of a plea bargain (“when you plead to a lesser charge”); she knew the consequences of pleading not guilty (“go to trial; I can either win or lose the trial, and I can be found innocent or guilty”); and she knew the maximum prison term she was facing (“15 years”). After eight months at Kirby, the staff decided she was mentally fit enough to be prosecuted. She was sent back to Rikers Island.
A COURT OFFICER WHISKED TARA into Brooklyn’s Mental Health Court two days before Christmas 2003. She had stopped going to court while she was at Kirby; as soon as she got back to Rikers, the routine resumed. This morning, she wore a pink T-shirt with her usual courtroom footwear: slip-on canvas sneakers.
“Judge, I just wanted to say, if I can say without crying, I just got the right medication, and I feel like now I’m not having delusions,” Tara said. “I feel like, you know, when I got in trouble with all these people, I was asking them a lot of questions. I wasn’t out to kidnap anybody. I was just asking them questions because I feel kind of paranoid.”
“They got scared, you know,” Judge Matthew D’Emic said.
“I understand that. I’m sorry. It’s not going to happen again. I’m on the right medication now. ... I’m on 25 milligrams of Prolixin once every two weeks.”
“They inject it?”
“Yes ... It works good for me. I don’t have the nightmares anymore. I don’t have the delusions anymore. ... I was so suspect of everybody I saw with a baby, that they were trying to hurt these kids or they were trying to sell these kids. I mean everybody I saw. And this went on for years. So I’m hoping that—with the medication and with somebody to talk to and things to do with my time like go to school and things like that—I can get over this.”
“You seem better than I ever saw you,” Judge D’Emic said.
Tara hoped the judge would send her to a mental health program. She thought this was the best of the four options she had. If she didn’t get into a program, she’d have to plead guilty (she’d heard the prosecutor might offer seven years), go to trial (if convicted, she could get 15 years), or enter a plea of “not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect,” commonly known as the insanity plea.
If she took this last option, she’d be confined indefinitely at Kirby. During her stay there, she had met people who’d been locked up for 10 years or more. They warned her that if she took the insanity plea, she’d lose her freedom for a very long time, maybe even forever. In any case, it is rare that a defendant chooses this option and a prosecutor approves it. Only 32 people in New York State were found not guilty by reason of insanity in 2003.
Getting out of jail and into a mental health program depended on Tara’s ability to play by the rules. The number one rule, of course, was that she keep taking her meds. Now that Tara had returned to Rikers, Jean worried that she would start refusing her Prolixin shots and become delusional once again. This is a common occurrence: Inmates fail a 730 exam, go to a hospital, get stabilized, return to Rikers, and then decompensate all over again.
Jean assigned herself the task of trying to keep her daughter stable. She scribbled down the date of every Prolixin shot Tara received. Then she called and berated the mental health staff on Rikers if 14 days passed and Tara hadn’t received another shot. A day or two could make a huge difference. Maybe the guards couldn’t see it, but Jean could tell from talking to Tara when the delusions were beginning to take hold again.
Sometimes Tara appreciated her mother’s efforts; other times she didn’t. The angry calls from her mother to the jail’s mental health office did not endear Tara to the staff. About her mother, Tara says, “She always makes trouble for me. Well, she doesn’t make trouble for me—but when there’s trouble, she calls and gives them hell. They’re like, ‘Don’t have your mother call here anymore,’ because she’s probably so obnoxious.” Other times, Tara appreciated her mother; many inmates had nobody looking out for them.
The Prolixin injections kept Tara’s delusions at bay, but there were side effects too. “When I’m not on medication, I think about a zillion things during the day,” she said. “A lot of times, I felt like I was in heaven.” Prolixin suppressed not only her delusions, but also her imagination. Now she was bored all the time, and depressed too. “I can’t think of anything while I’m on this medication,” she said. “Your mind doesn’t turn the same way it used to. It’s almost like a little lobotomy.”
Except for the days when she went to court, every day was the same. Sitting around the unit, trying to block out the noise of the television, making yet another cup of coffee, inhaling the stale air. She was allowed outside for one hour a day, at 8 a.m., but she rarely went because she was still sleeping or it was too cold. The lack of exercise plus the Prolixin had pushed her weight up 30 pounds.
“I want to get out of here,” she said in March 2004, after she had been locked up for 601 days. “I’ve never been so tired of anything. I’m physically tired from all of this. I’m not living a normal life. I’m not walking around. I’m not getting any fresh air. I run a little and I’m worn out. I feel like I aged 10 years.”
Tara was about to turn 37 years old. She talked about getting her own apartment in Manhattan, finding work as a waitress, enrolling at the New School, making some new friends. She wanted to find a boyfriend, get pregnant, have a family. Her aspirations were no different from those of other women her age. But as the months crawled by, her optimism faded. “I used to dream that I would get out of jail and I would do things with my life,” she said. “Now I don’t even think about that anymore.”
40 Trips to Court
THROUGHOUT THE SPRING, Tara continued to go to court in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Jean attended nearly all these court dates, sitting in the audience with her pocketbook on her lap. Jean didn’t tell Tara, but she found these days scary and stressful. As soon as Jean walked out of the courtroom, she’d shove a hand in her pocketbook and rummage around for a cigarette. Sometimes she’d pull out a tissue, too, to wipe tears from her eyes.
In Mental Health Court, Judge D’Emic always allowed Jean to speak briefly with Tara. One morning in March, as an officer escorted Tara into the courtroom, Jean slid into her regular seat in the front row. When the clerk called Tara’s case, the prosecutor and defense attorney headed up to the judge’s bench for a private discussion. Tara walked toward Jean, settling into a chair next to the wooden banister.
“Those three people are up there deciding your life,” Jean said, glancing toward the judge’s bench.
“I hope they give me a chance,” Tara said. “They should.”
“You certainly have made quite an impression on society, madam,” Jean said.
She reached over and stroked Tara’s cheek. Some days this sort of gesture got a strong reprimand from a court officer— “No touching!” —but today nobody seemed to notice. At the end of their three-minute chat, Jean wrapped her arms around Tara. Tara’s wrists were cuffed behind her; she couldn’t return the hug.
Judge D’Emic seemed inclined to let Tara go into a mental health program, but only if she remained stable and received approval from the court psychiatrist.
“Can you be patient?” Judge D’Emic asked.
“I’m trying,” Tara said.
“We’re just trying to work it out,” he said.
The average length of stay in the city jail system is 47 days. Mentally ill defendants invariably spend extra time locked up if they have to go to a hospital to be stabilized before their case can proceed. Defendants charged with murder or another serious felony are typically held the longest, sometimes for more than a year before their case is resolved. But even compared to all these inmates, Tara had already been imprisoned without a conviction for an exceptionally long time—more than 700 days.
In Mental Health Court, a social worker finds programs for the defendants, overseeing a process that is more complex than it sounds. Many programs are hesitant to take somebody with a long rap sheet, especially someone charged with a violent crime. And there is a chronic shortage of beds. Defendants who need a residential program can spend an extra six months or more in jail, waiting for an empty bed.
The unusual circumstances of Tara’s case made the task of getting her into a program especially difficult. Since she had criminal cases pending in two boroughs—Brooklyn and Manhattan—she would need approval from two prosecutors and two judges. And in Brooklyn, a prosecutor from Staten Island was handling her case because one of the babies she had been accused of trying to kidnap was the daughter of a Brooklyn prosecutor.
In June, Tara got her first bit of good news: The court psychiatrist decided she was stable enough to be sent to a program. And she found out that FEGS, a well-respected mental health agency, was considering giving her a bed at its residence on Wards Island. The prospect of getting out of jail soon lifted Tara’s spirits.
On July 16, 2004, the second anniversary of her Brooklyn Heights arrest, she was still on Rikers. By now she’d made 40 trips to court. Every time she walked into a courtroom, she was a little paler and a little heavier. Her once brown hair was now gray on top.
On August 10, she was brought to court in Brooklyn once again. She stood in her usual spot—at the defense table next to her court-appointed lawyer, Paul Lieberman.
“I can’t stay there any longer!” Tara shouted, stamping one foot on the floor. “It’s been two years!”
“Miss McDonald, why don’t you come up?” Judge D’Emic said.
A small group approached the judge’s bench—Tara, her attorney, the prosecutor, the court social worker, two court officers. The judge offered a few soothing words, urging Tara to be patient while they tried to get her a bed in a program. Tara returned to her chair at the defense table, her eyes red and watery.
“I hate it there!” she hollered. “Paul, how much time am I looking at? Can you ask them? I’m going to spend five years in this freakin’ program that I can’t even get to! I don’t want to sit around here anymore! I can’t stand it!”
‘We Danced Like Lunatics’
JEAN WAS ABOUT TO TURN 67, and it didn’t look like her crusade was ever going to end. She lived in Astoria with two of her sons, surviving on Social Security checks. She couldn’t afford to bail out Tara—$150,000 for the Brooklyn case alone. She couldn’t afford the cost of putting Tara in a private psychiatric hospital. She couldn’t even afford a private attorney. All Jean really had was her mouth and her word processor. “Tara is no more a criminal than I am,” she’d say. “But the system slowly weaves a noose around your neck. Once you get involved with the criminal justice system, you’re a dead guppy.”
For seven years, Jean had been writing letters, making phone calls, and sending faxes on Tara’s behalf. She’d amassed hundreds of pieces of paper: letters she’d written to the state mental health commissioner, letters to politicians, form letter responses, lists of advocates and their phone numbers, news clippings, psychiatric reports, jail records, hospital records.
The documents that angered Jean the most were the insurance claim forms from Pilgrim state hospital, where Tara had spent 18 months at a cost of about $15,000 per month. Medicare paid these bills, but to Jean they represented yet another insane aspect of the mental health system: The price tag for Tara’s stay at Pilgrim had come to more than $180,000 a year, and yet Tara had come out no better than she went in. “Where the hell does all the money go?” Jean would say. “It’s absolutely mind-boggling! For that kind of money, each patient could go on a world tour with a private therapist.”
Jean had waged dozens of battles on Tara’s behalf, with few victories. One of the only triumphs had occurred in 2001 when Tara’s Manhattan lawyer, Frank Rothman, had convinced a judge that she should not have to join the state’s sex offender registry. (Since Tara had pleaded guilty in 1998 to attempting to kidnap a child, she’d been automatically required to register as a sex offender after her release from prison—even though she had never been accused of doing anything sexual.) There was so little good news in the McDonald family that they had to appreciate whatever they got. They celebrated the judge’s decision during a Valentine’s Day party at Pilgrim. “We danced like lunatics,” Jean recalled. “The place was really hopping by the time we left.”
Ever since Jean had started going to court for Tara, she paid close attention to news stories about the criminal justice system. One of the cases that bothered her the most involved Amy Grossberg and Brian Peterson, the young couple from New Jersey who killed their newborn son by putting him in a plastic bag and tossing him in a dumpster. Brian spent only 20 months in prison; Amy did 24 months. Already, Tara had been in Rikers longer than both of them.
When Jean wasn’t berating Rikers personnel on the phone or typing angry letters or trekking to court or to jail, she was in the house, usually watching PBS or listening to Randi Rhodes on Air America. She drank lots of coffee and smoked cigarettes all day long. Just about every night, Tara called. There usually wasn’t anything new to discuss, but it was good to hear her voice. They talked about what Tara had eaten for lunch, who she was playing cards with, what books she was reading.
Jean wanted to be able to spend time with her daughter. Not talking on a jailhouse pay phone. Not leaning over a courtroom banister for a five-second hug. She wanted to be able to meet Tara for lunch, take her shopping, maybe sign her up for school or dance classes. Another mother might have given up long ago, but Jean refused to stop fighting. Her greatest fear, the one that ran through her mind all the time, was that Tara would have to live in an institution of one kind or another for the rest of her life.
To improve Tara’s mental health right now, Jean thought she should be moved back to Kirby—not stay on Rikers—while she waited for a mental health program to accept her. Jean had outlined this request in letters to the commissioners of the city jail system and the health department, without any success. “It’s been over two years!” Jean hollered at Lieberman, Tara’s attorney, in the hall of the Brooklyn courthouse one morning. “Why can’t they just start treatment and put her in Kirby? Tell them to put another box on the admission sheet!”
Lieberman gave the answer she’d already heard a dozen times: Kirby is for people who fail their mental-competency test; once they’re considered mentally fit enough to be prosecuted, they go back to Rikers. Jean had never erupted like this before in front of Lieberman; she usually saved these tirades for friends and family. She placed a hand on his arm. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I just want to scream at someone.”
Letters to a Judge
MANY PARENTS LIKED the Mental Health Court because it kept their children out of state prison, but Jean was skeptical about whether it would work for Tara. To get into a mental health program, Tara would have to plead guilty to attempted kidnapping. If she completed the program without getting into any more trouble, the felony would be erased from her record and she’d be allowed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor. It seemed simple enough, except that when it came to Tara nothing was ever simple. If things went awry—if, for example, she convinced someone to decrease her Prolixin dosage, the delusions returned, and she began trying to save babies once again—she was going to state prison for at least seven years.
The Mental Health Court places defendants in residential programs where they are free to walk out the front door. There are strict rules and curfews, but the facilities are not circled by razor wire. Tara was excited by the prospect of getting out of jail; this same possibility terrified Jean. She was convinced that Tara needed to be locked up first in a hospital where she could get consistent care for a year or two—where she could gain more insight into her illness and learn how to manage it better. This was not a possibility, however, unless Tara pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. Neither Jean nor Tara wanted to go down this path. As Jean put it, “I don’t want her warehoused for 15 years in Kirby.”
On September 12, 2004, after Tara had been locked up for 789 days, Jean sat down in front of her word processor. “Dear Judge D’Emic,” she typed. “I plead with you to find an appropriate secure facility with the capability of treating Tara competently.” She printed out the letter. If she mailed it, she knew Tara would be angry with her. She worried her words might sabotage Tara’s changes of getting into a program, so she put the letter aside.
Nine days later, she wrote another letter:
Dear Judge D’Emic,
I am Tara McDonald’s mother and I write to express an opinion about her need for Intensive Therapy and humane consideration. Tara needs to be in one place long enough to establish a trusting relationship with a good, interested, capable therapist. Long enough to glean some understanding of her illness and to cultivate an ability to recognize and control her behavior. It begins with medication but that is only a beginning.
Without these considerations being addressed she will be condemned to repeat her behavior by the failed system that exists today for the mentally ill. ... Since 1997 she has suffered under this system - trying to adjust to many transfers, new staffing, different doctors, changing treatments, fragmented care. It works against the establishment of trust, community of relationships, any level of comfort and undermines the therapeutic process. ...
If failure comes with the program as set up now it will be seen as 100% Tara’s responsibility. Not true. New York State has a responsibility to “care and treat.” ... They have certainly spent enough money. (Bills enclosed)
I am watching this legal steamroller coming at her, knowing that if someone doesn’t address these issues she and people like her will be crushed by slow, malignant neglect.
Jean McDonald RN
The next time Jean went to court, Judge D’Emic invited her up to the bench. “Jail isn’t any good for her,” he said. “I understand that.” He explained that he didn’t have any control over the state budget, that there was nothing he could do about the shortage of treatment options. Jean shared some of her concerns too. “Tara has a seven-year history of New York State kind of treatment, and I’m just watching her die,” she said.
Throughout the fall and into the winter, Jean continued to go to Tara’s court dates. “Hang in there,” Lieberman, the Brooklyn lawyer, said on October 14, 2004. “This is continued progress.” On November 5, staffers from FEGS interviewed Tara for the second time, to decide if they would accept her. “We’re so close I can taste it,” Lieberman said. “It really looks like it’s going to work out.”
In the end, though, it didn’t work out. The program rejected Tara. Had Tara botched the interview? Had Jean angered the staff when she’d called with questions? Jean didn’t know, but the answer didn’t really matter. They were back where they started, except that now Tara had been locked up without a conviction for an extraordinarily long time—nearly 900 days.
AT THE END OF 2004, Tara had been making plans—to clean out her cell, give away her possessions, start her life once again. “I think this time I’m really going to get it through my head to mind my own business,” she said. But then she heard FEGS had rejected her, and she became even more despondent. When Tara called home, Jean wasn’t even sure what to say anymore. The hope that Tara would get into a program had carried them both along for months, giving them something to talk about and look forward to.
In March 2005, Tara was told that another mental health agency in Manhattan, The Bridge, had agreed to accept her. Nobody knew exactly how long the wait for a bed would be. April 11 marked her 1000th day locked up without a conviction. Ten days later, she went to court in Brooklyn and pleaded guilty to attempted kidnapping. This was another Alford plea: She didn’t actually admit intending to kidnap anyone. The following day, she entered the same plea in Manhattan. She will have to spend five years at The Bridge program, then another three years on probation. She is expected to move into a residence on the Lower East Side in the next week or two.
April 26 is Tara’s 38th birthday. When she was a child, birthdays always meant a party with friends and a Carvel ice cream cake bought by her mother. Now that she is in her thirties, birthdays mean something very different. She was locked up for her 31st, 32nd, 33rd, 34th, 35th, 36th, and 37th birthdays. She will spend her 38th birthday making yet another trip from Rikers to Brooklyn State Supreme Court; the judge wants to keep an eye on her while she waits for an empty bed. Jean, meanwhile, is less concerned with birthday celebrations than with keeping her daughter out of jail for good. “I have my fingers crossed,” she says.